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SCIENCE, CULTURED

A Temporary Last Column

Some Notes on Two Years of Science Watching for Policy

green street signs at intersection reading Science and Policy SOURCE: iStockphoto, SP Redressing the imbalance between research and outreach, between the creation of knowledge and its sharing.

Science, Cultured

Contributing editor Chris Mooney

Science Progress contributing editor Chris Mooney surveys the interactions between science, politics, and culture. He is the author of several books, including The Republican War on Science and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. He and Kirshenbaum blog at “The Intersection.” (Photo: flickr.com/sarahfelicity)

Following this column, I will be going on leave after more than two years of writing weekly or bi-weekly for Science Progress. It’s not that I wanted to stop contributing; but I’m taking a fellowship that requires laying down my pen for the coming academic year. Kind of like quitting smoking, it will be a trial to do, although certainly rewarding.

However, the occasion provides an opportunity to reflect on many, many columns, and on several years of writing about American science as it intersects with our political world and our culture.

The topics I have covered here were diverse. After all, I wrote regularly about the science of hurricanes, about global warming, about the intersections between politics and science, and about science in the media, among many other topics. But the columns also shared many common themes. For I was exploring again and again, albeit in different ways, the problem of why science often just doesn’t get through to the people who need it most in other parts of our society—the politicians, say, or the journalists.

I am confident this emphasis was not wasted. The translation of science into other spheres is a critical problem today, not only because a new generation of science policy controversies will soon be coming down the pike, but also because we live in a time of media upheaval, when (as I have noted in many columns) science journalists are vanishing from the traditional press, and it’s not clear who is going to be there to take their place. It may well be that in the future, the translators of scientific knowledge will have to be the scientists themselves, if only because we may not be able to rely on the journalists any longer.

Looking back, I also see a clear progression to the many columns I wrote— one necessarily dictated by the much larger events that surrounded us all.

We went, during these years, from an administration that had stomped science into the ground, to an administration that consciously pledged to right that wrong. As this occurred, I inevitably focused less and less on anti-science abuses and wrongdoing by the outgoing Bushies, and more and more on the kinds of problems the Obama team couldn’t necessarily fix, despite their renewed emphasis on science. These were, largely, the problems of science in the culture, and in the society. They were the sort of problems that would remain with us long after the Bush administration departed from the White House and Washington.

It’s also notable that I wrote the column during a time of major anniversaries and occasions for reflection on where we now stand with respect to science in America. In October of 2007 came the 50-year anniversary of Sputnik. In July of 2009 came the 40-year anniversary of our landing on the moon. Also in 2009 came the 200-year anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, and the 50-year anniversary of C.P. Snow’s “Two Cultures” lecture.

Such events provided repeated occasions in the column to ponder where we now find ourselves. Essentially, for 50 years in the United States—post Sputnik—magnificent scientific research has been performed. There have been incredible innovations we are all proud of: landing on the moon, decoding the genome, creating the Internet, and more. And we deserve that pride: We made a conscious decision, decades ago, to create a scientific establishment that would reward us in this way. It wasn’t done on the cheap; it wasn’t by accident. Rather, it was one of the soundest investments that our parents could possibly have made.

And yet it is apparent, looking back over those years, that there are also some things we are not so proud of. After all, much of the public didn’t come along on American science’s incredible odyssey of discovery. And our scientists didn’t learn nearly as much about reaching the public as they did about how to understand nature—and how to use such understanding to create technologies that benefit us.

If there has been a central theme to this column, it is that it is long past time for this imbalance—between research and outreach, between the creation of knowledge and its sharing—to finally be redressed.

Even without license to write regularly for the next year, I plan to keep thinking about how we can do that—and I want to thank all of you for following my work on this subject over the past two years.

Chris Mooney is contributing editor to Science Progress and author of several books, including The Republican War on Science and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. He and Kirshenbaum blog at “The Intersection.”

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